Jason Flatt pets Sarah, whose face was mangled in a dog fight.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KAYLINN GILSTRAP
The brown puppy has acquired a perpetual, ingratiating, lopsided grin. She recently started to wag her tail and answer to the name June.
A couple of months ago, she was found chained outside DeKalb Animal Control. Half of her face was missing, her ankle was broken, and she had a nasty staph infection. She looked destined for euthanasia. Nobody wants a pit bull mangled in a dogfight, which is precisely why Jason Flatt did want her. An animal control worker had texted him a photo of the pup’s disfigured face.
“I didn’t know what I was looking at, at first,” Flatt says of the dog’s messy wounds. “I can’t say for certain that there was dogfighting involved, but her injuries are consistent with it. I wasn’t sure if she even had a jawbone left, but I knew one thing for sure: I had to save that dog.”
Every morning, Flatt wakes up compelled by that simple mission: He has to save a dog—especially ones that everyone else has given up as lost. June received reconstructive surgery for her injuries and joined the ranks of damaged creatures salvaged by Friends to the Forlorn (FTTF), Flatt’s Dallas, Georgia–based animal rescue operation, which has worked with every canine breed from Chihuahuas to Mastiffs but specializes in pit bulls. He takes on the fighters and the biters, the blind and the deaf, and any other special-needs case rejected by other organizations or sentenced to death row at the pound. One dog had been frozen to the ground during an ice storm; another had more than 60 puncture wounds; one had been tortured with a shock collar. Flatt even offers a sort of hospice care, taking in dying dogs and easing their final days with steak and ice cream.
“The worse shape the dog is in, the more determined I am to fix it,” he says. “Pit bulls are despised. They’re hated and feared and therefore more likely to be abused.”
The world of animal rescue has its own lingo and division of labor. There are the Cross-posters, who share heart-melting photos online; the Transporters, who deliver animals into safe custody; the Rescuers who pull from the shelters; and the Fosters, who take in ailing or traumatized animals like June to heal before they land in a forever home—if they can avoid the dreaded Rainbow Bridge. Flatt plays all of these roles and more, sparing no effort or expense to restore the most hopeless cases to health and happiness. Even among the devoted community of animal welfare activists, he stands out as a zealot, both for his ecumenical, thorough-going approach and for his visually arresting face, which is heavily inked with a variety of tattoos, including life-size paw prints on each cheek that memorialize two of his rescues.
“Quinn came from a fighting ring in Dublin, one of 38 dogs I rescued from that case,” Flatt recalls, indicating the print on the right side of his face. “And Melony was a cruelty and fighting case in DeKalb,” he adds, pointing to the other. “They both were full of scars; they both needed time to trust me. I made a plaster mold of their paws to use as the pattern for my tattoos. By the time I die, I want my body to be covered with paw-print tattoos.” It’s a tribute he reserves for his personal fosters.
Flatt’s countenance also bears short epigraphs, written around his eyes and down his neck: “Look Deep,” “Don’t Sleep,” and “Forlorn.” His back is a canvas for a giant, majestic pit bull with angel wings. A native New Yorker, he talks fast, moves with restless intensity, and warns new acquaintances that he often “drops the f-bomb.” A vegan, he munches on raw broccoli throughout the day. In what little spare time he has, he boxes and writes lugubrious poetry about the alienation of pit bulls (“I’m just a pit bull. . . . I was born out of brutality and cruelty / any act of kindness toward me would be something completely new to me. . . .”). All of which give Flatt the aura of a punk-rock St. Francis of Assisi, the animals’ patron saint who reputedly tamed a marauding wolf.
“We are judged by what we look like and not what we are. We both are expected to fail. I have always had to prove people wrong. So do they. I relate to them.”
“People assume I’ve been in prison,” he says with a shrug. “Women clutch their pocketbooks tighter when I walk by. Children point and stare. I get treated like a freak show.”
No matter; his unconventional presentation is a defiant statement of solidarity with his spirit animal. “Pit bulls and I both are looked down upon without people getting to know us,” he says. “We are judged by what we look like and not what we are. We both are expected to fail. I have always had to prove people wrong. So do they. I relate to them.”
Pit bulls claim a complicated history, as chronicled in the book, Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon by Bronwen Dickey. First, they are not, in the technical sense, a breed. They are a category that comprises the American pit bull terrier (APBT), the American Staffordshire terrier (AmStaff), and the Staffordshire bull terrier, a smaller, English cousin that Britons do not regard as a pit bull. In 2013, the United Kennel Club added one more: the American Bully, a heavier variant of the AmStaff. Dogs from these breeds can weigh anywhere from 25 to 100 pounds and display at least 16 different coat colors and patterns. They all, however, possess a poignant, unassuming kind of beauty, with their blocky heads and wide-set eyes, front legs that often are comically bowed, and skinny hindquarters.
Pit bulls were not always demonized. During the 1920s, they were known as solid, all-American, dependable “Yankee Terriers.” Teddy Roosevelt kept one in the White House, and comic hero Buster Brown’s brindle companion was always by his side. Silent-film star Pal the Wonder Dog appeared in 224 films, traveled with his own valet, and was eventually cast as Pete the Pup, abetting the mischief of the Little Rascals. Yet another pittie listened “for the sound of his master’s voice” from a Victrola.
The dog’s reputation started to change in the 1970s and ’80s when a spate of magazines—from Esquire to Sports Illustrated—published harrowing exposés of dogfighting, rife with misinformation that presented pit bulls as hardwired to kill and therefore complicit in the blood sport. One widely circulated Texas Monthly article claimed the dog has “an undershot jaw capable of applying 740 pounds of pressure per square inch”—a figure that over time was exaggerated to 2,600 ppi and never corroborated with science. Other myths made the rounds: The dogs do not feel pain. They never let go. They can bite through steel, concrete, and chain-link fences. And the dogs have locking jaws, double jaws, or jaws that can unhinge like those of a snake. Each article always seemed to use the phrase “ticking time bomb.”
The fact is, their mandibles are like any other mutt’s, and according to the American Temperament Test Society, pit bulls are statistically better behaved than golden retrievers. (Published studies have shown chihuahuas and dachshunds are among the most aggressive toward humans.) The damage was done, though. This Cerberus-like image made the pit bull the ultimate guard dog and status symbol for tough guys, from urban rappers to rural Ku Klux Klansmen. Dogfighting—and overbreeding—increased.
“It’s estimated that, at any given moment, there are 40,000 dog fights with 100,000 spectators,” says Amy Soeldner, animal cruelty liaison officer with the Atlanta Police Department. “In Atlanta, it’s mostly impromptu fights in backyards and basements. The more organized contests take place in rural areas.”
“They’re often starved to the point of emaciation to get down to a certain weight class, and they’re given steroids and narcotics,” says Soeldner. “I’ve seen puppies dragging large bricks with padlocks. The dogs’ ears and tails are often cropped with kitchen shears. I’ve seen children as young as seven at dog fights.”
In all 50 states, dogfighting is a felony—one that sent the Atlanta Falcons star quarterback Michael Vick, who owned 51 pit bulls, to prison for 19 months. But, as a testament to their native temperament, many of his animals were successfully rehabilitated, earning them the nickname “Vicktory pups.”
Flatt curses not only this cult of cruelty but also the public apathy that enables it. “People say, when they hear how these dogs are treated, that they’re ‘outraged,’” he says. “Outraged? Really? Tell me when you’re outraged enough to get up off your fucking ass to do something about it.”
Meet Jason Flatt’s Dogs
Flatt, 45, grew up in Queens, where he dragged home stray dogs and learned “not to take any shit from anybody.” He concedes, “I wasn’t the greatest kid. I got into some stuff, but nothing serious, like getting speeding tickets on my motorcycle.” One positive influence remained a constant in his life, though: Calvin, a pit bull who lived to be 18, bucking all of the stereotypes. “Calvin was regarded as a family member,” he says. “Losing him was hard. That was the first big loss of my life.” Flatt was 12. He dreamed of becoming a veterinarian but ended up, for a time, in a much different field.
Taking in Flatt’s aesthetic today, it is hard to visualize him clad in Brooks Brothers, but for many years, he made a nice living as a commodities broker and then as managing director of an equity research publication on Wall Street. His quick, adrenalized wits served him well in that high-stakes environment. “I was leading a very selfish life, very involved with myself and my career,” he says. “I made good money. I’ll never be that rich again, but I don’t care. What’s important to me now is that I live a decent life, saving dogs.”
At age 32, he faced the second great loss of his life. “On July 22, 2005, I got a phone call that rocked my world,” Flatt says. “My older brother, Evan, who was a federal agent, killed himself. Nothing mattered to me during that time. I plunged into a really bad depression. I was dying on the inside—I died that day along with him.”
Flatt, whose job enabled him to work remotely, opted for a fresh start, a change of scene. A friend had introduced him to Georgia, where there was more elbow room, so he bought some 14 acres of grassy, rolling land. Then, one day, someone gave him a five-week-old, five-pound pit bull puppy. Flatt named him Angelo.
“This little dog literally saved my life by giving me a purpose.”
“He was just what I needed,” Flatt says. “This little dog literally saved my life by giving me a purpose. He was easy to train, would do anything you commanded. He was so attuned to what I needed. He liked other dogs, was gentle with children and cats. I would take him running with me. He was my savior. I couldn’t find peace until I had him. That little dog made me get up in the morning.”
When he went to the pound to get a friend for Angelo, he experienced another life-changing revelation. Almost all of the kennels held a pit bull. For every responsible breeder—the most famous of which is Antwan “Big Boi” Patton, whose southwest Atlanta–based Pitfall Kennels counts Serena Williams, Jermaine Dupri, and Usher among its clients—there are far more opportunistic backyard breeders who have flooded the market and shelters with neglected or mistreated animals.
“At any given time, at least 80 percent, and possibly as high as 90 percent, of our dogs are pit bull types,” says Audrey Shoemaker, director of client services for Fulton County Animal Services. “Because pit bulls make up so much of the population here, they’re the dog most often euthanized.”
Flatt decided to foster a couple of dogs, which he placed in permanent homes, then took on a couple more. “Word got out that I was saving one dog at a time,” he says. “Pretty soon, I had placed 100 dogs in homes.”
He established Friends to the Forlorn in 2009, converting his two-story, eight-bedroom house into what he calls the Pit Bull Palace. Furniture is minimal and covered; there is no television. “The dogs own the house,” he says. “They just let me live here.” But there is no telltale pet odor. Flatt goes through seven loads of laundry a day and several gallons of bleach. Outside, he has constructed eight segmented, grassy yards, with eight-foot high fences and two feet of concrete underground to prevent dogs from digging their way out. The dogs usually get at least a couple of hours of outdoor playtime every day. Security cameras monitor the facility. Often, he says, he gets calls from former dog owners, just sprung from prison, who want to reclaim their money-makers. “Don’t mistake my compassion for weakness,” he warns.
He keeps up to 30 pit bulls on his own property with the help of two full-time employees. Other dogs are farmed out to 47 foster homes across metro Atlanta, where they await adoption. The most aggressive animals are more isolated. “It just depends on the dog, depends on its temperament whether it’s allowed to socialize. We never leave any dog unattended.” He’s only ever been bitten when breaking up dogfights—an inconvenience he shrugs off as an occupational hazard.
So far, his organization, a 501(c)3 with an annual budget of $400,000, has saved 600 dogs and counting.
“Last year, he came to the shelter to temperament-test a group from a cruelty conviction,” Shoemaker says. “He ended up pulling two into FTTF and helped me place a third with another responsible group that he trusted. He saved some great dogs from that case.”
She adds, “I also call Jason when I have strange situations. For example, someone abandoned a couple of donkeys. He took them both in, and now, they live in his pasture.” That would be Brutus and Jenny.
“I had to lose myself to find myself. I’m not saving these pit bulls—they are saving me. I would die for them. I’ve found exactly what I was put on earth to do.”
In the course of tending to so many animals, Flatt has acquired the ad-hoc expertise of a vet tech. “At this point,” says Dr. Clay Leathers, Flatt’s on-call veterinarian, “Jason has a supply of medicine, and he usually doesn’t encounter an injury in the middle of the night he can’t deal with. I work with a lot of rescue groups, but Jason’s is the best because he goes above and beyond. He takes the cases that no one else will touch.”
When Flatt pulls a dog from a shelter, he expects some inevitable challenges. “We know the dog will have issues—parasites, kennel cough, or much worse,” he says. “So, we quarantine him for two weeks to get the health problems taken care of. We do temperament tests. If the dog is aggressive, we respond with lots of love and patience. We take our time with him. It’s very important not to rush a dog or force yourself on him all at once. Let him decide he can trust you, and you will eventually tame him.”
To keep so many animals from ending up incarcerated in the first place, Flatt also works with West Georgia Spay and Neuter, and together, they have fixed more than 6,000 dogs and cats. One bitch and her pups, if left unaltered, can theoretically produce 67,000 dogs in seven years, he says. He also just began helping Paulding County with a trap-neuter-return program for feral cats.
Despite these achievements, Flatt still feels overwhelmed by the beseeching eyes that follow him at the pound. “I can save 140 a year, but it’s a losing business model,” he says. “I could clean out the pound, and it would be full again within another week or two.” He considered adding on to the Palace last year to accommodate more dogs and applied for a zoning variance. Some of his neighbors turned out in protest.
County commissioner Tony Crowe decided to investigate this unusual operation that everyone was buzzing about, so he popped in for an inspection. “The place was very secure and very clean and very professionally handled,” he says. “I was thoroughly impressed. I didn’t understand why anyone would protest something that so clearly is doing so much good. That was baffling. I don’t know if they envisioned a huge pack of dogs just running loose and wild or what, but that is not what Jason is doing. Besides that, he’s saved the county a bunch of money with his spay-neuter program.”
Now, Flatt is dreaming even bigger. Instead of adding on to his current compound, he wants to build a new state-of-the-art treatment center for dogs on property nearby. It would include a furnished apartment so a manager would always be on site, along with a veterinary clinic with high-tech equipment, including hydrotherapy and an underwater treadmill. “We get hundreds of broken legs with our dogs,” he says. “Many of our dogs are hit by cars, so they need full rehab.” So far, FTTF has raised a little more than $500,000 in its capital campaign to drum up $2 million toward this goal. Flatt hopes to break ground within the next three years.
One popular fundraiser is Bully Bingo, which the group coordinates quarterly at Mazzy’s bar in Marietta. Flatt sells a collection of his poetry, Ode to the Forlorn, along with T-shirts and other pit bull merchandise (also available through his website, friendstotheforlorn.org). That event usually brings in around $5,000, and it provides some social bonding time for the organization’s hard-working foster families.
“This is like our Mothers’ Day Out when we can come together as humans and discuss our four-legged children,” says Emily Hite, who is on her eighth dog with FTTF. “We bring each other pee pads for toilet training, and sometimes, Jason will bring us the medicine we need. Our latest dog, Finley, has a severe bacterial infection, so we call him the ‘hot mess express,’ but he is improving.”
Her husband, Greg Hite, a history teacher, adds, “We’re flaming liberals who live in Decatur, and we don’t have any children. We wanted to do more with our lives besides appreciate good wine. So, we fell in love with pit bulls, and it’s been an intense experience, nursing sick ones back to health. To see one that is near death and then, a couple of weeks later, is just a goofy dog chasing a ball or curling up with you on the couch—there’s just no feeling like it.”
Even after logging long hours at the pound or the veterinary clinic with a mauled dog, Flatt comes home to wash out 28 water bowls and mop the floor. He sorts through the 1,500 or so emails he receives each day, most of them slugged “URGENT.” He tries to reply in some way to all of the ones from Georgia. In accordance with his “Don’t Sleep” tattoo, he only snatches a nap at night, but he feels happy and rested. “I haven’t had a vacation in years,” he says. “I was even late for my mother’s funeral. But rescue work saved me,” he says. “I had to lose myself to find myself. I’m not saving these pit bulls—they are saving me. I would die for them. I’ve found exactly what I was put on earth to do.” Lucky dog.
This article appears in our December 2018 issue.